Halcyon days

British impressionism - Have we ever matched Monet? Simon Poe revisits our own charming painters

Port Sunlight is what I have always imagined heaven would be like, if heaven were a housing estate. Unfortunately, it was named for the soap made in the factory whose workers it was built to house, not for the prevailing weather conditions, and I had to trudge from the railway station through driving English rain, past the splendid war memorial and elegant fountain, to the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

The gallery, looking vaguely like a Greek temple, nestles somewhat incongruously among the homely houses of the village. Port Sunlight, on the Wirral peninsula, is a fantasy, but an elaborately realised one, much more successful than Portmeirion in nearby North Wales, for instance, the cult television series The Prisoner notwith-standing. People live in Port Sunlight; they commute to work. So, too, is the English seaside holiday a fantasy. The reality - pebbly, uncomfortable, windswept beaches; cold, unsanitary sea water; sand in your sandwiches and tar on your clothes - is something to which we have blinded ourselves as a culture. I love the seaside as much as the next Englishman, so I came to Port Sunlight to enjoy a delightfully frivolous exercise in curatorial whimsy, the Lady Lever's summer exhibition "Beside the Seaside: the British impressionists".

The description "British impressionist" may seem almost a contradiction in terms to the art-loving layman. Impressionist = Monet; quintessentially French, surely? Qu'est-ce que c'est que "British impressionism"? Well, painting outdoors ("en plein air"), painting what you see, an interest in modern-life subject matter, and a fairly bright, colourful palette are more or less constants.

Part of the problem, I think, is charm. I am reminded of Anthony Blanche's great tirade (in Brideshead Revisited) against the charm of Charles Ryder's paintings - "the shade of the cedar tree, the cucumber sandwich, the silver cream-jug, the English girl dressed in whatever English girls do wear for tennis". French impressionism is a robust, realist art, beside which the British variant can look a bit fey.

"Beside the Seaside" is an utterly charming exhibition. It is a small show, but the curators at the Lady Lever have borrowed well from Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Ipswich, Newcastle, Bristol and the Tate, and made the most of the splendid collection of their fellow National Museums Liverpool art gallery, the Walker. Standing head and shoulders above all the other paintings is Walter Sickert's The Bathers, Dieppe (pictured above). With its arbitrary cropping, restricted field of view and steep perspective (from the promenade?) down on to a group of paddlers in the surf, it acknowledges the new aesthetic of the holiday snapshot. Painted in 1902, it is an emphatically 20th-century picture. Three men in stripy bathing costumes wade out to sea. For the accompanying wallboard, the curators have unearthed a photograph of Sickert in an identical swimsuit. Now, that's what I call research.

Two displays at the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead (not far from Port Sunlight - take in both galleries in one trip) complicate the question, rather than simplify it. "Philip Wilson Steer: a very English impressionist" is composed entirely of brownish pictures (by Constable out of Corot, so to speak). "Shades of British Impressionism: Lamorna Birch and his circle" is more colourful, and describes the whole arc of Birch's long career. He was capable of descending to the worryingly chocolate-boxy, but his masterpiece, Morning Fills the Bowl, is very beautiful. The style of the paintings is consistent, but what was mildly avant-garde in the 1890s had stiffened into extreme conservatism long before his death (and he painted right up to the end) in 1955. Birch worked in Cornwall (even taking the name "Lamorna" from the cove near which he lived) and was intolerant of the modernist colony that grew up near him at St Ives. We are accustomed to thinking of impressionism as a stage in the almost seamless progress to whatever we mean by "modern art", but for many British practitioners of the style, impressionism turned out to be a cul-de-sac.

Philip Wilson Steer's Girls Running, Walberswick Pier may have had its origins in studies made from life, but the result, reworked over several years, is weirdly dreamlike and goes beyond impressionism into an almost symbolist intensity. His Knucklebones, Walberswick (above) of children playing on the shingle, playfully references pointillism in its repre-sentation of individual pebbles, and, like Sickert's Bathers, adopts a snapshot-like point of view that excludes the horizon. Charles Conder's paintings The Beach, Ambleteuse, On the Beach, Swanage and Newquay are decorative, elegant studies that must have seemed wistful and elegiac even when they were new. The sun shines, the children play, the bathing machines trundle down to the water's edge, the flags and beach tents flutter in the pleasant breeze. None of these beaches (except perhaps Sickert's Dieppe) is the sort on which turds and condoms ever wash up. Charming fantasies. No, really, charming. Go and see them. You'll have a lovely time.

"Beside the Seaside: the British impressionists" is at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight Village, Wirral (tel: 0151 478 4136) to 4 September, and then the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull (tel: 01482 613 902) from 17 September to 20 November

"Shades of British Impressionism: Lamorna Birch and his circle" is at the Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead (tel: 0151 652 4177) until 18 September

"Philip Wilson Steer: a very English impressionist" is a permanent installation at the Williamson Art Gallery